Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ronaldo's fishy reply, l'amour en Foot and Bilic's radical roots

EURO 2008 Quarter-final lineup:
Germany v Portugal
Croatia v Turkey
Netherlands v Russia
Italy v Spain

Germany v Portugal tonight looks an intriguing contrast of styles.

The Lusitanians will be hoping Cristiano Ronaldo can catch fire in the right way tonight and burn the German defence that was breached twice by Croatia in the group stage.

While Germany will not be short of fans pouring across the Swiss border to Basel, Portugal can count on the largest expat support of any competing nation in Switzerland.

Their victory over the Czechs in Geneva almost felt like a home game, given the numbers of red and green flags flying from windows across the city.

* * *

"We are more technical, while the German game is more physical," Ronaldo succinctly put it.

"The physical game does not win tournaments," assured German coach Joachim Löw, "but it helps you not to lose them."

Ronaldo is a daily fixture in the Spanish sporting press, who leap at any rumour of a rumour of a rumour regarding his interest in playing for Real Madrid next season.

While the Manchester United winger has erected a wall in front of questions on his future, journalists have had to use a Trojan horse: "Do you prefer paella or fish and chips?" one cheeky hack asked him. "Bacalhau" (Portuguese fish dish) was Ronaldo's smart reply.

* * *

The uncrowned King of Germany, 'Kaiser' Franz Beckenbauer, who put the boot in relentlessly on Löw's predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann, has said Germany must improve in order to beat Portugal tonight.

"The midfield has suffered from a lack of ideas," he told Bild. "They will have to play like they did in the 3rd place play-off in 2006."

Should the Teutonic muscle triumph, the praise should go to the American and Japanese fitness coaches employed by the Klinsmann/Löw regime. Mark Verstegen and Massaya Sakihan are gearing up the Mannschaft with tests employed on NASA astronauts.

* * *

Spain v Italy looks the pick of the quarter-finals to me.

The Spanish have played the most attractive soccer of EURO 2008 thus far and do not have any major injury worries.

"I thought they (Italy) were dead but they made it through in the end," Spanish coach Luis Aragones told journalists. "They are not the team I wanted to play but today anyone can beat anyone. They will be a very tough opponent but I have a lot of faith in my team."

Memories of the USA 1994 quarter-final in Boston chime. Jose Luis Caminero had equalised Dino Baggio's opener for Italy, before Spain missed a hatful of chances in the second half, allowing Roberto Baggio to pop up and score the winner with three minutes remaining.

Spain and Italy are superficially similar Latin European nations, with shared Roman roots and mutually intelligible languages. Spain is the home of two giants of the club game. Barcelona and Real Madrid are colossi of economic and political power, their influence stretching far beyond the football pitch.

Spain have also joined Italy at Euro 2008 in complaining about the changeable weather in the Alps, a shock to the weeks of endless sunshine in their own lands.

But when it comes to the national teams, however, Italy has long been streets ahead. The Azzurri have bagged three World Cups to Spain's none. This time more than ever, though, the tables look set to turn.

The world champions are up to their old tricks, flattering to deceive with a sluggish start before turning their engines on full blast when they're up against the wall.

Roberto Donadoni's revival however, will be badly hit by the absence of Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo, suspended after picking up two yellow cards. What a loss to the tournament, let alone Italy.

Why must UEFA and FIFA persist with this cruel rule? At least UEFA have prevented another 'Gazza's tears' incident by erasing bookings after the quarter-final. But that is too late for Gattuso and Pirlo, and possibly Italy.

In domestic play you need to accrue five yellow cards to miss a match, so why is it two in international tournaments, when the absence of key players ruins the spectacle.

* * *

Rumours of discontent within the French squad are growing. That would come as no surprise given Les Bleus' disenchanted body language throughout their three games.

What are the players traipsing home across the Alps to make of their coach Raymond Domenech proposing live on air just after France had been eliminated by Italy?

The game had gone from bad to worse for France, who first lost their most useful attacker Franck Ribery through injury before Eric Abidal was dismissed for a clumsy tackle. "The only thing I am thinking of right now is to marry Estelle," exclaimed Domenech post-match, to stupefied millions.

Conspiracy theorists are pointing to Ludovic Giuly's omission from the French squad as down to the Roma winger's 'friendship' with Domenech's girlfriend. Estelle Denis presents '100% FOOT' on France's M6 channel and she and Giuly exchanged a number of texts after he appeared on her show in 2004.

Giuly grovellingly apologised to Domenech, claiming he had no idea they were a couple, but that didn't stop Domenech leaving Giuly out of the 2006 World Cup squad, as well as Euro 2008.

Domenech and Denis already have two children, Merlin and Victoire. If only their father could have been a magician and pulled a victory out of the hat. Domenech has since apologised for the rush of blood to his head and has also excused France's poor form by saying his real objective was to prepare for the 2010 World Cup.

* * *

Spain had an unfair advantage beating Greece in Salzburg. The Wals-Siezenheim stadium is nicknamed 'the Bullring', or in Spanish, 'Arena de los Toros', thanks to its occupancy by Red Bull Salzburg.

Those purists who fear an American franchising of football in England should wake up to what happened here three years ago.

The old Austria Salzburg, dating back to 1933, became Casino Salzburg in 1978, Wustenrot Salzburg in 1993 and finally Red Bull Salzburg in 2005.

The last of these changes was the most controversial as it ditched the tradional purple strip in favour of the corporate red and white colours. Salzburg's kit is identical to that of its sister club, the New York Red Bulls (formerly the Metrostars) and forms part of a global corporate identity which includes the Formula One Red Bull team.

Die-hard supporters, in a move to mirror those of AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester, formed a new club in 2006, successfully registering the traditional name and logo and entering the team in the seventh tier of Austrian football (no jokes, please).

SV Austria Salzburg have enjoyed two promotions in as many seasons and deserve our best wishes.

* * *

Croatia coach Slaven Bilic has been one of the stars of Euro 2008. The former Hajduk Split, Karlsruhe, West Ham and Everton defender has been the most effusive of the coaches on the touchline, celebrating Croatian goals as if he were still playing.

Not your average footballer, the quadrilingual law graduate and smoker plays guitar in a rock band and hails from a radical family.

His father was one of the students who organised a protest against 'President for Life' Tito at Split University in 1971.

Although Bilic senior was not jailed, the family were placed under surveillance. When Bilic junior was selected to play for Yugoslavia at the 1987 World Youth Cup in Chile, his selection was overruled from above, making Slaven even more pro-Croat than ever.

Twenty-one years down the line, he has surely got his revenge.

* * *

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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